An ambitious first novel that's strongly reminiscent of Robert Stone's 1967 debut, A Hall of Mirrors. Set in 1950 in New Orleans, laboriously interweaving the destinies of its three desperate protagonists, it's a shrill story overburdened by melodramatic contrivances and wheezing with ``significance''--and it's also an exciting display of a formidable fictional imagination at work. When Cajun Harlan Desonnier is released from prison after serving eight years for accidentally killing his wife Janine, he looks for Father Francis Doyle, the priest who had visited and consoled him--rather than seek his old friend Louis Chopin, who, Harlan is convinced, had fathered the daughter Janine bore him. But Father Frank, who has lost his faith for reasons the narrative only hints at, is undergoing his own crisis--searching for a missing black man whom he had rescued from a savage street beating and is intent on ``saving.'' Glory Wiltz, a nurse Harlan meets when a fight with his brother sends him to the hospital, is herself at crisis point, trying to regain custody of her young son from her estranged husband, a black jazz musician. Palmer brings these three together more or less credibly and sends them on a multi-motivated quest that climaxes on Halloween; then she allows each, All Saints' Day, a measure of closure, if not redemption. Though the author writes crisp, tangy sentences and expertly renders the details of Cajun home life, her characters' agonies are simply too portentous to ring fully true. Glory's alienation from both her own white liberal upbringing and her husband's milieu is insufficiently developed, and Father Doyle is a cardboard, Graham Greenederived clichÇ. But Palmer succeeds brilliantly with Harlan Desonnier, especially in the moment when his violence and pain seep away, when he intuits saving ``presence, something that lived just beneath the surface of things.'' A bold try, and a genuine promise of much stronger work to come.